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SEPTEMBER 13, 2014 vol xlIX no 37 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Cleaning the Ganga River
What Needs To Be Done Differently
Vijay Jagannathan
Vijay Jagannathan (Vjagannathan@wri.org)
is a senior fellow at the World Resources
Institute, Washington DC.
The central government has made
cleaning of River Ganga one of
its foremost priorities. A former
administrator involved with
the Ganga Action Plan suggests
that a bottoms-up approach of
involving local communities and
stakeholders in the regeneration
of the river would be the only
possible way in which the new
initiative will avoid the failures
of the past.
ast efforts at cleaning the Ganga
River had invariably received
political support at the highest level
in the central government, but the results
were meagre compared to the funds and
administrative time invested. The author
was responsible for managing the West
Bengal part of the Ganga Action Plan
(GAP) in the late 1980s, and so these ob-
servations reect the benet of 20/20
hindsight, as well as having been engaged
in different aspects of water manage-
ment in several parts of the world.
The key lesson learned from the past
and ongoing World Bank nanced effort
is quite stark: systemic factors, perpetu-
ated by two centuries of state public
works departments (PWD) practices of
projectising civil engineering solu-
tions cannot be reconciled with the
desired outcome of a clean and well
maintained, mixed land use riverfront
development which turbocharges local
urban economies by galvanising civic
action to clean the river.
Mind the GAP
The GAP was conceived during Prime
Minister Rajiv Gandhis term in ofce
with three components of central gov-
ernment funds to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar
and West Bengal. The largest and most
capital-intensive allocation ended up
supporting investments in sewer lines,
drains and in rehabilitating sewage
treatment plants (STPs) along the river.
The second component was to build cre-
matoria in the large urban centres, so
that the ancient practices of cremating
bodies using rewood (but often in
practice dumped half burned into the
river) could be replaced with more sani-
tary and respectful disposal of the dead.
The third component was to beautify
riverfronts or ghats, many of which had
great historic and cultural signicance,
but had over the centuries been reduced
to unsanitary bathing and washing spots
for pilgrims and the urban poor alike.
Although the second and third com-
ponents of the GAP were of more direct
local community interest, the anxiety to
disburse central funds quickly in the
three states (none of which were known
for administrative efciency) led the
central government to focus on the
hardware part. This included how to
monitor investments in civil works
schemes (for example, laying of sewer
lines, interceptor drains and retting
derelict STPs with new electrical and
mechanical equipment).
These civil engineer driven efforts
ignored the communities that potentially
stood to benet, and there was even less
interest in engaging urban planners,
architects and social activists who could
have contributed their knowledge of the
existing urban form, explained the herit-
age potentials and helped us understand
the multiple layers of rights and interests
of the various stakeholders. The latter
ranged from temple mahants, owners of
local industries and shopkeepers to the
Doms, rickshaw pullers and tourist guides
who earned a livelihood by the river.
Furthermore, while an expert com-
mittee was set up to evaluate the per-
formance of STPs throughout India, the
lessons learned (notably that the STPs
invariably failed to perform after a cou-
ple of years of operation in all parts of
India) were not considered during the
rush to disburse funds and report back
to the Prime Ministers Ofce.
The second component the electric
crematoriums were designed and con-
structed for operation by the municipali-
ties, although the business model in other
parts of the world, where cremation is
a common form of disposal, has invol-
ved public-private partnerships (PPPs).
Bereaved families in India will vouch that
cremations are a harrowing experience,
although experience from Japan and
Korea suggest that well-designed PPP
contracts not only enable cities to get
access to the latest energy efcient tech-
nologies, but a more professional ap-
proach of consoling the bereaved family
Economic & Political Weekly EPW SEPTEMBER 13, 2014 vol xlIX no 37
members rather than be subject to extor-
tion at the time of their grief.
The third component of beautifying
the ghats was at odds with the global ex-
periences in successful waterfront deve-
lopment (in cities as diverse as Singa-
pore, Foshan, Baltimore and Bangkok).
The common link in these successful
efforts was the generation of economic
value from the redeveloped shore areas,
which was shared transparently with
city residents who had housing, custom-
ary and informal rights in those areas. All
these efforts were preceded by careful
and systematic planning aimed at gener-
ating land value increases through mixed
use development while intensively engag-
ing the communities that stood to benet.
The failures of GAP have been widely
accepted, and since 2011, the World
Bank has been supporting the Ministry
of Environment and Forests in a second
effort for cleaning the Ganga through
the $1.5 billion National Ganga River
Basin project. While the project docu-
ment asserts that the design has learnt
its lessons from the failures of the GAP,
its twin foci are on building capacity in
the entire river basin, while allocating
core investments for civil engineering
solutions implemented through the very
same state civil engineering agencies
that failed to deliver on the GAP promise.
It is, therefore, not surprising in the least
that the latest project supervision (Feb-
ruary 2014) report has concluded that
implementation performance has been
unsatisfactory at a time when this ag-
ship programme is well into the third
year of its implementation!
Successful cleaning of the Ganga
requires a different vision and leadership
than what can be expected from the silo-ed
sectoral agencies in these relatively poor
performing state administrations.
I would argue that actions are re-
quired on three fronts. These are:

To ensure that the incentives among

project implementation agencies are
consistent with the prime ministers
vision of a Swachcha Bharat.

To start with institutional innovations

that rst secure community acceptance
of a mixed use urban plan that generates
economic value along important cities
on the Gangas riverbanks.

The leverage of technology and nanc-

ing opportunities linked to demand-
driven urban development that helps
create incomes and employment, along
with a better physical quality of life.
To achieve this, I would suggest a
four-step process in which the appro-
priate sequencing of actions is critically
The rst step would be to have com-
munity engagement in assessing the sit-
uation, and utilising the expertise of
urban planners and architects to devel-
op a vision on protecting the river, as
well as the cultural heritage along its
banks. The most important asset in a
city is the waterfront land that residents
and the municipality own or have rights
to. Any programme to clean the river
has to begin by exploring how best this
asset can be leveraged to not only re-
duce the outow of liquid and solid
wastes to the river, but also generate
economic value to local stakeholders.
An illustration will be in order here.
In ancient cities like Varanasi, there are
multiple layers of rights to land, which
often lead to resistance when the govern-
ment seeks to acquire land. However, the
same communities respond well when
future plans incorporate their economic
interests. For example, riverfront devel-
opment has the potential of generating
signicant increases in land values, and
community support is robust when these
increases are captured and/or shared
with them in a transparent manner.
Similarly, areas of historic and cultural
heritage have signicantly higher long-
term economic benets when they are
protected from redevelopment, provided
innovative solutions such as selling of
air rights to other parts of the city safe-
guard these property owner interests. In
this context, the Gujarat and Maharashtra
land pooling and readjustment mecha-
nism (as opposed to the land acquisition
model followed in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,
Jharkhand and West Bengal) provides a
more practical institutional mechanism
to secure community engagement.
Importance of the Locality
The next step is to reach agreements
with communities, city and state admin-
istrations and national governments on
who will bear what costs in this process
of urban regeneration that accompanies
cleaning the river. This step will involve
nding common ground and agreement
(often as a consequence of tough nego-
tiations) on how responsibilities and
economic benets will be shared bet-
ween them and other stakeholders.
In cities across the world that have
successfully implemented such pro-
grammes, the primary beneciaries have
been households, businesses and indus-
tries in neighbourhoods that benet
from the urban renaissance. For exam-
ple, Varanasi, Allahabad, Patna and
Kolkata are already major destinations
for tourists, and an improvement in the
physical environment of the waterfront
will greatly enhance their attractiveness
to tourists and investors alike. The key is
for residents of the city wards being able
to share the economic benets of land
value increases in an equitable and
transparent manner.
There are several planning tools avail-
able to ensure that this happens. These
include innovations in planning regula-
tions, investigating options to preserve
cultural and built heritage while en-
hancing land value capture, utilising in-
formation and communications technol-
ogies to plan, execute and sustain the
development of the waterfronts, along
with tax (or betterment levy) implica-
tions, to name a few. The widespread
familiarity with social media makes deep
community engagement much more cost
effective compared to what was possible
even ve years ago.
The third step is to delegate implemen-
tation responsibilities to organisations
best suited to deliver the desired out-
comes. In other words, one should apply
the subsidiarity principle of managing
change at the lowest appropriate level.
It is necessary to start with the mohallas
and wards, and assign implementa-
tion responsibilities to neighbourhood
institutions. The works should begin
with separation of solid wastes, move on
to explore options for improving sanita-
tion and hygiene, and nally work out
neighbourhood plans that communities
endorse fully.
For example, in low-income com-
munities of Brazil, the idea that these
SEPTEMBER 13, 2014 vol xlIX no 37 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
residents need to manage their respec-
tive horizontal condominiums (just as
rich people maintain common areas in
high rise or vertical condominiums
viewed in TV soap operas) has been a
useful way of securing community en-
gagement in improving their neighbour-
hood physical environment.
Beyond neighbourhoods, planners
and policymakers need to assess which
type of institution is best suited to man-
age urban services. For example, funeral
infrastructure in countries where cre-
mation is prevalent is best managed
through professional private sector enti-
ties, regulated by municipalities. Other
increasingly attractive technologies, such
as conversion of waste to energy or
rooftop solar distributed generation need
to leverage nancing and technology
through PPPs. Mixed land use that safe-
guards the housing rights of the urban
poor has led to signicant increases in
land values in Bangkok city without
social conicts.
Finally, the Funds
The fourth step is to release Government
of India funds for engineering design
only as a last step, after the responsibili-
ties, rights and contracting arrange-
ments have been worked out. The suc-
cess of the programme will depend on
the extent to which the institutional and
incentive structures are aligned to the
desired goal of cleaning the Ganga.
The sequencing of the policy formula-
tion and planning process will be the
key factor in achieving good results. Today,
with the benet of social media and the
availability of a lot of expertise both
within India and in other Asian coun-
tries that have undertaken similar pro-
grammes, the visioning and institution-
al restructuring could be undertaken
fairly quickly. The good news is that the
initial phases of agreeing on the urban
plans, securing a common vision, nego-
tiating and nalising the work pro-
gramme are time intensive, but not re-
source intensive. However, once there is
an agreement to move forward, funds
can be allocated and disbursed much
faster, but linked to achieving the out-
comes specied in the work programme.
These may involve leveraging smart sub-
sidies and viability gap funding for PPPs
rather than channelling central govern-
ment resources to these relatively inef-
cient state agencies.